Friday, January 17, 2014


"Lalena" / Donovan

I meant to stay away from the oldies for a bit -- but this girl muscled her way forward, and for some reason my ears can hear nothing else today.

By the time this winsome single came along in hippie-dippy 1968 -- a follow-up to "Hurdy-Gurdy Man," one of the great psychedelic mind-trips -- we all knew the Donovan lexicon. The wobbly reverby vocals, the gentle acoustic strum, the background flutes and harps. Flower child music to the Nth degree.

Yet this one had something special -- instead of being just about love and meadows and sunshine it actually had a social message. Donovan has said that he was inspired to write this song by watching Lotte Lenya playing the streetwalker Jenny in G.W. Pabst's 1931 film of The Threepenny Opera, and learning that now for the first time, I see the song slightly differently. But not all that much -- even if you didn't know that provenance, you could feel the groundswell of sympathetic sorrow in "Lalena," a cry of commiseration for all the outcasts of society.

Donovan's trembly vocals come into their own here, the gentle melisma like a caress of concern. "When the sun goes to bed / That's the time you raise your head." In 1968 I thought this was just because Lalena was a cool countercultural chick who liked to sleep in -- but now that I know the Lotte Lenya inspiration, seeing as how she's a working girl, the pity in the next lines make more sense: "That's your lot in life, Lalena / Can't blame ya, Lalena." Anybody who wants to enact legislation against this trapped and desperate misfit will have to take it up with the esteemed member from Glasgow, Mr. Leitch.

Given Donovan's Scottish accent, I wasn't one-hundred-percent sure what he was saying in the next verse. Turns out it really was nonsense syllables: "Aw Tee Toft / La Dee Da." But I picture Donovan watching this German film with subtitles, and hey, who knows what he meant to convey. And the next line is certainly an armchair critic's cry of sympathy: "Can your part get much sadder?"

In the bridge, there's a hippie-dippy possibility, like an Herbal Essence shampoo commercial : "Run your hand / Through your hair" -- but no, it's just a prostitute's attention-getting hair-fluff. While my 1968 self saw the next line -- "Paint your face with despair" -- as a reference to a French street mime single-tear make-up, now I know that it's just the heavy mascara and rouge of any lady of the night. The despair part comes free.

Oh, and that tender bridge, full of strings and woodwinds -- maybe it seemed a little weird and retro in 1968, but I'll bet the 1931 movie had put those orchestrations in Donovan's mind, and they would not be denied. Seemed odd at the time, but now it makes the song.  

I imagine Donovan, the famous folkie, sitting in his living room watching this film and being overwhelmed with emotion. A song HAD to be written. The song in fact didn't even make it onto his Hurdy Gurdy Man LP and was only released as a single, but that single hit hard on the US charts. (Contractual disputes, no UK release, but hey, it's an old story to a Kinks fan.) All I know is that in 1968, this high school kid heard the song on the radio and fell in love with it.  Forever.

8 DOWN, 44 TO GO


Anonymous said...

Just curious, why would you feel it necessary to make an effort to stay away from "the oldies"? As Duke Ellington said, "There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind . . ."

Holly A Hughes said...

I just meant that after so many other oldies, I'd hoped to change things up, to give readers a mix of old and new. It's always good to expand horizons. Never fear, I've worked some newer songs into the series. And they're good too!